Last-ditch virus aid talks underway; Trump team at Capitol

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic leaders launched a last-ditch effort to revive collapsing Washington talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money, summoning Trump administration negotiators to the Capitol on Friday in hopes of generating progress.

Both sides said the future of the negotiations was uncertain after a combative meeting on Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi convened a new meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Friday afternoon. President Donald Trump says he is considering executive orders to address evictions and unemployment insurance, but they appear unlikely to have much impact.
A breakdown in the talks would put at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.
In a news conference on Friday Pelosi said she offered a major concession to Republicans.
“We’ll go down $1 trillion, you go up $1 trillion,” Pelosi said. The figures are approximate, but a Pelosi spokesman said the speaker is in general terms seeking a “top line” of perhaps $2.4 trillion since the House-passed HEROES Act is scored at $3.45 trillion. Republicans say their starting offer was about $1 trillion but have offered some concessions on jobless benefits and aid to states, among others, that have brought the White House offer higher.
“That’s a non-starter,” Mnuchin said of Pelosi’s split-the-difference offer as he entered her office.
It is clear that Pelosi does not want to walk away from the talks that promise up to $2 trillion in aid, an enormous sum when compared with a federal baseline budget of about $4.7 trillion. She has offered to reduce her almost $1 trillion demand for state and local governments considerably, but some of her cost savings would accrue because she would shorten the timeframe for benefits like food stamps.
Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer say the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.
“It’s clear the economy is losing steam. That means we need big, bold investments in America to help average folks,” Schumer said. “And when the economy starts losing ground, the only choice is for a strong package. And yet at times yesterday, our Republican friends seem willing to walk away from the negotiating table.”
On Friday, the Democrats pointed to the July jobs report to try to bolster their proposals. The report showed that the U.S. added 1.8 million jobs last month, a much lower increase than in May and June.
Senate Republicans have been split, with roughly half of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rank and file opposed to another rescue bill at all. Four prior coronavirus response bills totaling almost $3 trillion have passed on bipartisan votes despite intense wrangling, but conservatives recoiled at the prospect of another Pelosi-brokered agreement with a whopping deficit-financed cost.
The White House is also promising that Trump will attempt to use executive orders to address elements of the congressional package involving evictions and jobless benefits. But there’s no evidence that the strategy would have much impact or be anything close to what’s necessary.
Pelosi and Schumer staked out a firm position to extend a lapsed $600-per-week bonus jobless benefit, demanded generous child care assistance and reiterated their insistence for food stamps and assistance to renters and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure.
“This virus is like a freight train coming so fast and they are responding like a convoy going as slow as the slowest ship. It just doesn’t work,” Pelosi said Friday. “And what we put in our bill is what we saw as necessary, necessary to save the lives of the American people, the livelihoods of the American people.”
McConnell has sent the Senate home rather than forcing impatient senators to bide their time while Democrats play hardball. That suggests a vote won’t come until late next week or even after.